Monday, August 26, 2013

Captain Ortwein: An Odyssey in Royal Icing

So I have this co-worker - great guy. He's funny, brilliant, capable, and a total lifesaver (like, the red ones 'cause they're the best). Honestly, when he's at the office, he probably saves my hide at least once a day.

As a result, I've taken to calling him Captain Ortwein (as in Captain America). To show him how much of a superhero he is, I've been planning his birthday cake for months - literally months, as in six. I decided to do an icing transfer of him as a superhero for the top of his cake.

The real fun of this is not just the finished product, but the fact that I got to learn a new skill - icing transfers. Icing transfers are like little stained glass pieces made out of royal icing that you can pop on the top of a cake to give it a groovy, polished finish. You outline your drawing in regular royal icing, then thin the icing with a bit of water and fill in the outlines. You could also use "Color Flow" from Wilton, as it's designed specifically for this technique.

The original "Captain Ortwein" design.
Sometimes, however, my ambition gets the better of me. Most people would start with a really simple design. I chose to go "full-retard" as a friend of mine would say and tried to do a full comic book character in seven different colours.

I was super proud of the drawing and thought - this is going to be the most epically amazing cake in the history of epic cakes.

To start with, every guide I looked at recommended using a No.2 pastry tip for the design, but as you may notice, the design is a little too complex for a No.2 tip. The total image was less than 8"x10" and all those pockets and buttons proved too small for the No. 2.

Attempt #1... Yeesh.

My solution was to use pastry bags and cut the tip super fine to achieve more detail, which sort of worked (though not as well as one would hope). I thought he came out looking a little too "Woody Allen." The icing was lumpy. The whole thing looked too amateur. But this was my test run and I thought, no problem. I can improve.

As my test run, I let it dry for three days and then tried to peel it off the wax paper. No go. His spindly little legs snapped like twigs.

Alright, I have a new plan. It's a better plan, I thought. I added a background to the image to give it more heft. I added in all the boxes and artwork that are in his "office." No problem. I got this.

Maybe a background?
And, indeed, it came out a little better. I was happy-ish with it. It wasn't perfect, but it was solid. I did about eight of these... And my technique got better and better. I understood the icing and how it would react... Unfortunately, each one crumbled when I tried to take it off the paper - his neck snapped every single time, the boxes often split at the outlines. At one point, I had an air-tight container that was just a pile of "Captain Ortwein" wreckage. I tried wax paper, cling film, glass, and sheet protectors. I tried everything. And, having invested nearly three hours per image times nine attempts, by hour 24, I was getting desperate - and terrified. Maybe I had finally met my baking match. Maybe there are things in this world I just can't do. Maybe I will never be able to show Captain Ortwein how awesome I think he is in superhero cake form....

[Insert panic attack here]

Then I remembered... No.2 pastry tip.

I had been warned that the smallest I could possibly go; I just hadn't listened. I wanted the detail. So, after a near-tears conversation with a very rational, very even-keeled friend of mine from The Sheep and Pickle Farm), I decided to pare down. I could still make an awesome cake - I just needed a less detailed design. I decided to go with a semi-cameo style and then make a fondant cape to flow behind him.

Attempt #10... Take that!
With bated breath, I began again. Redrew the design, and started to outline. Please, please, please, please, became my mantra. The outline was definitely more solid and seemed more viable. Actually, it looked way better than anything I'd produced up to that point (in my humble opinion). And, upon filling it in, I felt myself relax a little. Maybe, just maybe this was going to work (which was good, because time was running out). I left the image to dry for several days directly under an air-conditioner set to "dehumidify" and kept my fingers crossed.

Waiting for the ganache to set
On the day before his birthday, I set to baking -the only part of this endeavor that I truly felt comfortable in. It was a port-wine chocolate cake with homemade fig jam filling and dark chocolate ganache poured over top like a beautiful, chocolate lake. Scrum-diddli-umptious if I do say so myself.

Captain Ortwein
Once everything had cooled and set, and the fondant cape had been rolled out and shaped (a little less full than I wanted in order to fit in the box), when I was ready to finish this puppy up after a four month journey, I shut off 'This American Life'... prayed to the baking gods... and slowly, slowly, slowly began to peel it off the wax paper.

Voila! No problem. The whole procedure was smooth and easy and totally not what I expected. So, I put the cake together, boxed it up, and my new mantra became 'I will not drop this cake; I will not drop this cake'.

In its perfectly white pastry box with a bright, superhero-blue ribbon wrapped around it, I was still nervous - would it melt? would he hate it? would the cape slide off the ganache and make a slimy red and brown puddle in the corner of the box?

But, ultimately, he loved it. Everyone did. And I learned a new skill that I can apply to cakes, cookies, cupcakes, and anything else I want moving forward.

If I had to "moral of the story" this situation, it's this - do it. I've been baking for ages; people tell me to open my own shop; but this technique almost had me in tears (admittedly, mostly because of my own stupidity and hubris, but still). Do I regret the hours and hours and hours over four months that I spent making it happen? Not one bit.

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